30 Day Song Challenge, Day 18 – “You Should Be Dancing” by the Bee Gees

The subject for Day 18 of my 30-day Song Challenge is “A song you sing well(ish) at karaoke“. Now let me state upfront that I’m not, nor have I ever been, a singer, nor have I sung karaoke very much. And most of the few times I did, I was embarrassingly bad. One of the eye-opening things about attempting karaoke is how really difficult it is to stand up and sing into a microphone when you’re not a singer, nor have any real experience singing in public.

My very first attempt at singing karaoke was back in the early 90s while at a bowling alley in Sacramento, CA with friends. After bowling a few games, during which we also drank a fair amount of alcohol, the six of us went into a room where people were singing karaoke. I and two friends, who were also co-workers, decided we’d tackle the B-52s classic “Love Shack”. Despite its fun, party-like vibe, “Love Shack” is not as easy a song to sing as one would think, partly because there are both male and female parts, but also because they’re meant to be sung in a colorful, animated style that requires a bit of vocal talent. Patricia sang the female parts okay, but Jim (who had an even worse singing voice than me) and I literally mangled the male parts. We were so bad, our other three friends began jeering and throwing food at us!

A few years later, after my partner and I moved to St. Louis, we had a friend who liked to go to karaoke bars. Curiously, though he played piano and sang beautifully, he never wanted to sing karaoke, but only watch others do it. We tagged along with him a few times, and one night, after I’d taken in just the right amount of liquid courage to lower my inhibitions but still maintain adequate mental acuity, I first sang the Olivia Newton-John/John Travolta number from Grease, “You’re the One That I Want”, in a duet with the bar owner’s daughter. Then I did a decent job singing the Archies’ bubble-gum classic “Sugar, Sugar”. With my newly-found confidence, on a subsequent visit to the karaoke bar, I summoned the courage to sing the Bee Gees‘ “You Should Be Dancing“. And much to my own surprise, I gave a stellar performance, falsetto and all!

Sadly, all my following attempts at karaoke, of which I can remember only three more – The Diamonds’ 1950s classic “Little Darlin'” (WTF was I even thinking that I could possibly handle that song, which I butchered in front of Patricia, of the “Love Shack” debacle, and her husband Keith, who were visiting from Sacramento), Sonny & Cher’s “The Beat Goes On”, in a pathetic duet with my friend Sue while on a cruise, and Queen’s “Crazy Little Thing Called Love”, which was far more difficult to sing than I’d imagined. After that humiliation, my karaoke days were over!

Now, for a bit of info about my song pick: As everyone knows, though the Bee Gees began their career writing and singing mostly heartfelt ballads, they transitioned to a more rock-oriented style in the 1970s, which later included a number of dance songs. Although the brothers Gibb felt their songs like “Jive Talkin'” and “Stayin’ Alive” were actually rock songs, they were labeled disco by both music critics and fans. I do consider “You Should Be Dancing”, with it’s infectious, thumping dance beat, as a true disco song, and what a fun song it was to dance to! Released in 1976, it was later used for one of the great dance scenes in the film Saturday Night Fever, where John Travolta wows us with his amazing moves on the dance floor.

Here’s the scene from Saturday Night Fever of John Travolta dancing to “You Should Be Dancing”:

30 Day Song Challenge, Day 17 – “Seasick” by The Rare Occasions

The subject for Day 17 of my 30 Day Song Challenge is “A song released this year“. This was another tough one, as there are literally thousands of songs to choose from. To help narrow my list of possible choices a bit, I decided to choose a song I like by an artist or band who follows me on Twitter, and who I’ve not yet written about in 2022. And the very first act that popped into my head is L.A.-based trio The Rare Occasions, and their terrific new single “Seasick“. I love their music, a glorious cornucopia of colorful melodies, sparkling arrangements, exuberant instrumentals, compelling lyrics and endearing vocals. With songs that are immediately memorable and delightfully addictive, it’s not surprising they’ve earned a massive following, with over 5.7 million monthly listeners on Spotify alone.

I first wrote about them in September 2020 when I reviewed their fantastic single “Alone”, so I won’t repeat a lot of background information about them that can be found in that article. But to summarize, with origins in New England, and based in Los Angeles since 2017, The Rare Occasions now consists of three very personable and talented guys: Brian McLaughlin on lead vocals and guitar, Jeremy Cohen on bass, and Luke Imbusch on drums. They’ve been putting out great music since the release of their debut EP Applefork in 2013, and last summer (of 2021), they released their outstanding second album Big Whoop. When I wrote about them two years ago, their song “Notion” had garnered approximately 1.7 million streams on Spotify. But after the song went viral on TikTok late last year, it’s now racked up more than 237 million streams! With their explosion in popularity, nine of their other songs have earned between 1-9 million streams.

Their latest single “Seasick” is a fun romp, with a bouncy, lighthearted groove set to Jeremy’s galloping rhythm, and highlighted by Luke’s thumping drumbeats and Brian’s exuberant surf guitars. Brian’s plaintive vocals are wonderful too, rising to electrifying wails in the lively choruses. The lyrics, which feature lots of nautical metaphors, speak to struggling with fears and insecurities that hold us back, preventing us from moving forward in life, living our truths and reaching our goals: “I can’t keep pushing back the plans I got, impersonating something that I’m not. / We get caught up in the little things, displaced from what we know. Though I’m not too fond of traveling, there’s a long long wake behind me.

The animated lyric video, with sweet artwork by Rhea Hanlon of Lost Lines Studio, and animation by Arianna Soto & Mamasoto Design & Media, shows the band floating in the sea on a small inflatable raft.

Follow The Rare Occasions:  Facebook / Twitter / Instagram

Stream their music:  Spotify / Apple Music / Soundcloud

Purchase:  Bandcamp

30 Day Song Challenge, Day 16 – “Bittersweet Symphony” by The Verve

The subject for Day 16 of my 30 Day Song Challenge is “A song from the 1990s“, and my pick is “Bittersweet Symphony” by The Verve. I’ve always loved songs with lush soundscapes and cinematic orchestration, and “Bittersweet Symphony” fits the bill quite nicely. The magnificent song is one of my favorites from that entire decade.

Though they’d been releasing music for over five years, their singles and albums failed to gain traction in the U.S. or elsewhere outside of the UK. “Bittersweet Symphony” proved to be their breakthrough hit, making them international stars. Released first in the UK in June 1997, the song reached #2 on the UK Singles Chart, and was nominated for Best British Single at the 1998 Brit Awards. It was named Single of the Year by both Rolling Stone and NME, and is considered one of the defining songs of the Britpop era. “Bittersweet Symphony” was subsequently released in the U.S. in March 1998, where it reached #3 on the Billboard Adult Alternative, #8 on the Adult Top 40, and #12 on the Hot 100 charts. The song was also nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Rock Song, and the music video was nominated in three categories at the 1998 MTV Video Music Awards. Surprisingly, it was their only song to ever chart in the U.S., though their albums Urban Hymns and Forth both reached #23 on the Billboard 200 Album chart.

The Verve have had a rather troubled history, facing numerous challenges, including name and line-up changes, break-ups, health problems, drug abuse and various lawsuits, for most of their existence. Originally formed as ‘Verve’ in 1990 while still in their teens, the Wigan, England-based group consisted of lead vocalist Richard Ashcroft (who Coldplay front man Chris Martin said is the best singer in the world), guitarist Nick McCabe, bass guitarist Simon Jones and drummer Peter Salisbury. (Guitarist and keyboard player Simon Tong later became a member during their first reunion period.) But within a year, American record label Verve, known for its extensive jazz catalogue, took issue with the band’s name and demanded they change it. Both parties reached a compromise by the band agreeing to add ‘the’ to their name.

From its beginnings, “Bittersweet Symphony” – whose title would become sadly apropos – was also beset with controversy. The song is based on a sample of a 1965 orchestral version of the Rolling Stones song “The Last Time” by the Andrew Oldham Orchestra, a group formed by Andrew Loog Oldham, the former producer and manager of the Rolling Stones. There was no actual orchestra, but rather a group of session musicians that sometimes included members of the Rolling Stones. Their recording of “The Last Time” was included on their album The Rolling Stones Songbook, featuring symphonic versions of Rolling Stones songs.

When Richard Ashcroft heard the Andrew Oldham Orchestra version of “The Last Time”, he thought it could be “turned into something outrageous“, as he later recalled to David Fricke for Rolling Stone. He sampled and looped four bars from the original recording, then added dozens more tracks, including additional strings based on the melody in the sample that were arranged by Wil Malone, along with guitar, percussion and his own layered vocals. In that Rolling Stone interview, Ashcroft said he imagined “something that opened up into a prairie-music kind of sound“, similar to the work of the Italian composer Ennio Morricone, and that “the song started morphing into this wall of sound, a concise piece of incredible pop music“.

The Verve obtained the rights to use a few notes of the string melody from the Andrew Oldham Orchestra’s “Last Time” by the copyright holder, Decca Records, in exchange for half of The Verve’s royalties on “Bitter Sweet Symphony.” However, they were not given permission from another former Rolling Stones’ manager Allen Klein, who owned the copyrights to the their pre-1970 songs, including “The Last Time”. When “Bitter Sweet Symphony” was about to be released as a single, Klein, by then head of ABKCO Records, refused clearance for the sample, saying The Verve had used a larger portion than previously agreed to. The Verve’s co-manager Jazz Summers turned to their American record label Virgin Records for help. Virgin played “Bitter Sweet Symphony” for Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, who liked the track, but declined to become involved in the dispute. Summers also sent a copy to Oldham, who wrote back: “Fair cop! Absolute total pinch! You can see why [ABKCO are] rolling up their sleeves.” (Rolling Stone)

ABKCO Records filed a lawsuit, which forced The Verve to relinquished all royalties to Klein, and change the songwriting credits to Jagger–Richards. Ashcroft received only $1,000. According to The Verve bassist Simon Jones, “We were told it was going to be a 50/50 split, and then they saw how well the record was doing. They rung up and said we want 100 percent or take it out of the shops, you don’t have much choice.” Rolling Stone wrote that the outcome was “patently absurd”, noting that Jagger and Richards were not involved with the sample or Ashcroft’s melody and lyrics. Ashcroft said sarcastically that “Bitter Sweet Symphony” was “the best song Jagger and Richards have written in 20 years“. Asked in 1999 whether he believed that the situation was fair, Keith Richards said: “I’m out of whack here, this is serious lawyer shit. If The Verve can write a better song, they can keep the money.”

In 1999, Oldham sued AKBCO, saying he was owed up to £1 million in royalties for the use of the sample. Years later he joked that he had bought “a pretty presentable watch strap” with his royalties, and said: “As for Richard Ashcroft, well, I don’t know how an artist can be severely damaged by that experience. Songwriters have learned to call songs their children, and he thinks he wrote something. He didn’t. I hope he’s got over it. It takes a while.” Billboard estimated that “Bitter Sweet Symphony” had generated almost $5 million in publishing revenue by 2019. In 2018, Ashcroft expressed his anger over the situation, saying: “Someone stole God-knows-how-many million dollars off me in 1997, and they’ve still got it … Anyone, unless you are mentally ill, will always remember the day when 50 million dollars was stolen off them.”

In early 2019, Ashcroft’s managers approached Jody Klein, who’d become head of ABKCO following his father’s death in 2009, for reconsideration of the lousy judgement. Klein then connected them to the Rolling Stones’ manager, Joyce Smyth, who agreed to speak to Jagger and Richards about the issue. That April, ABKCO, Jagger and Richards agreed to return the “Bitter Sweet Symphony” royalties and songwriting credits to Ashcroft. Ashcroft announced the agreement a month later at a ceremony in which he received the Ivor Novello Award for Outstanding Contribution to British Music. He said it was a “kind and magnanimous” move, adding “I never had a personal beef with the Stones. They’ve always been the greatest rock and roll band in the world. It’s been a fantastic development. It’s life-affirming in a way.” In a statement, the Rolling Stones said they acknowledged the financial and emotional cost of “having to surrender the composition of one of your own songs.” (Wikipedia)

Here’s the full album version of the song:

And here’s the instrumental version of “The Last Time”, by the Andrew Oldham Orchestra, that served as the basis for “Bittersweet Symphony”:

Top 30 Songs for July 17-23, 2022

There’s so much great music out now, I have at least 50 songs I’d like to put on my Weekly Top 30. “Seventeen Going Under” by Sam Fender remains at #1 for a second week. Closing in at #2 is Arcade Fire‘s heartwarming ““Unconditional I (Lookout Kid)”, while Lizzo slides into the #3 spot with her funk-pop earworm “About Damn Time”. German alt-rock band Milky Chance enter the top 10 with their cool song “Synchronize”. For some reason I cannot fathom, the song has not been anywhere near as popular as their previous single “Colorado”, even though I think it’s a better song.

Two songs make their debut this week: “Bones” by Imagine Dragons and “Grey” by Welsh rock band Holy Coves. While I’m a fan of Imagine Dragons, I didn’t care for their previous single “Enemy”, a massive hit now in it’s 35th week in the top 40 of the Billboard Alternative Airplay chart, nine of them at #1, but I do like “Bones” a lot. (“Enemy” and “Bones” currently hold the #4 and #5 spots on the Alternative chart.) I’ve resisted putting “Bones” on my chart for the past several weeks, but it’s just too damn infectious! “Grey” is the second song by Holy Coves to appear on my Weekly Top 30; their single “The Hurt Within” spent 11 weeks on my list this past Spring.

  1. SEVENTEEN GOING UNDER – Sam Fender (1)
  2. UNCONDITIONAL I (LOOKOUT KID) – Arcade Fire (3)
  3. ABOUT DAMN TIME – Lizzo (5)
  4. TELL ME THE TRUTH – Two Feet (2)
  5. BELIEVE – Caamp (4)
  6. A LITTLE BIT OF LOVE – Weezer (6)
  7. 2am – Foals (9)
  8. AS IT WAS – Harry Styles (8)
  9. MY LOVE – Florence + the Machine (7)
  10. SYNCHRONIZE – Milky Chance (12)
  11. THE FOUNDATIONS OF DECAY – My Chemical Romance (13)
  12. CLOSER – The Frontier (14)
  13. LONELY – Sea Girls (15)
  15. IN THE MIRROR – The Interrupters (18)
  16. WARNING SIGNS – Band of Horses (19)
  17. MISTAKES – Sharon Van Etten (21)
  18. CHASING TRAINS – HULLAH (10) 19th week on list
  19. WILD CHILD – The Black Keys (11)
  20. DESPERATELY WANTING – Brian Lambert & Marc Schuster (22)
  21. LIN MANUEL – Onism E (23)
  24. BLOODRUSH – The Amazons (16)
  25. UNTIL I FOUND YOU – Stephen Sanchez (29)
  26. SUPERMODEL – Måneskin (30)
  27. BEDS ARE BURNING – AWOLNATION feat. Tim McIlrath (20)
  28. LOVE BRAND NEW – Bob Moses (26) 21st week on list
  29. BONES – Imagine Dragons (N)
  30. GREY – Holy Coves (N)

30 Day Song Challenge, Day 15 – “Sledgehammer” by Peter Gabriel

The subject for Day 15 of my 30 Day Song Challenge is “A song from the 1980s“, and my pick is the glorious “Sledgehammer” by Peter Gabriel. With it’s wildly infectious driving rhythms and wonderfully trippy video, the song became one of the most beloved and popular of the 1980s. Released in April 1986 as the lead single from his critically-acclaimed and commercially successful fifth studio album, So, the song reached #1 in the U.S. and Canada, #2 in Austria, and the top 4 in Australia, Ireland, Norway, New Zealand, South Africa, Switzerland and the UK. The song was also nominated for three Grammy Awards for Best Male Rock Vocal Performance, Record of the Year and Song of the Year.

One of the things – among many – that make the song so uniquely fascinating was the use of a synthesized shakuhachi flute (a Japanese and ancient Chinese longitudinal, end-blown flute made of bamboo), generated with an E-mu Emulator II sampler. Gabriel said that the “cheap organ sound” was created from an expensive Prophet-5 synth, which he called “an old warhorse” sound tool. (Wikipedia) The great backing vocals were sung by P. P. Arnold, Coral “Chyna Whyne” Gordon, and Dee Lewis, who also sang backup on “Big Time”.

Ironically, “Sledgehammer” (which was Gabriel’s only song to reach #1 in the U.S.) replaced “Invisible Touch”, by his former band Genesis, at the #1 spot on the Billboard Hot 100 (which was their only #1 hit in the U.S. as well). In a 2014 interview with The Guardian, Phil Collins remarked “I read recently that Peter Gabriel knocked us off the #1 spot with ‘Sledgehammer’. We weren’t aware of that at the time. If we had been, we’d probably have sent him a telegram saying: ‘Congratulations – bastard.'”

You could have a steam train
If you'd just lay down your tracks
You could have an aeroplane flying
If you bring your blue sky back
All you do is call me
I'll be anything you need

You could have a big dipper
Going up and down, all around the bends
You could have a bumper car, bumping
This amusement never ends

I want to be - your sledgehammer
Why don't you call my name
Oh  let me be your sledgehammer
This will be my testimony

Show me round your fruitcage
'Cos I will be your honey bee
Open up your fruitcage
Where the fruit is as sweet as can be

I want to be - your sledgehammer
Why don't you call my name
You'd better call the sledgehammer
Put your mind at rest
I'm going to be - the sledgehammer
This can be my testimony
I'm your sledgehammer
Let there be no doubt about it

Sledge Sledge Sledgehammer

I've kicked the habit, shed my skin
This is the new stuff, I go dancing in, we go dancing in

Oh won't you show for me and I will show for you
Show for me, I will show for you
Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, I do mean you, only you
You've been coming through
Going to build that power
Build, build up that power, hey
I've been feeding the rhythm
I've been feeding the rhythm
Going to feel that power build in you

Come on, come on, help me do
Come on, come on, help me do
Yeh, yeh, yeh, yeh, yeh, yeh , yeh, yeh, you
I've been feeding the rhythm
I've been feeding the rhythm
It's what we're doing, doing
All day and night

The brilliant video for “Sledgehammer”, directed by Stephen R. Johnson and produced by Adam Whittaker, featured marvelous claymation, pixilation, and stop motion animation created by Aardman Animations and the Brothers Quay. For the video’s production, Gabriel had to lay under a sheet of glass for 16 hours while the video was filmed one frame at a time. In a 1986 interview with Philadelphia radio station WMMR, Gabriel commented “It took a lot of hard work. I was thinking at the time, ‘If anyone wants to try and copy this video, good luck to them.’” All that hard work paid off, as the video won an astonishing nine MTV Video Music Awards in 1987, more than any other video has ever won, as well as Best British Video at the 1987 Brit Awards.

30 Day Song Challenge, Day 14 – “Year of the Cat” by Al Stewart

The subject for Day 14 of my 30 Day Song Challenge is “A song from the 1970s“, and my pick is “Year of the Cat” by Scottish singer-songwriter Al Stewart. The lead single from Stewart’s album of the same name, the song was released in July 1976 in the UK, and October 1976 in the U.S. It peaked at #8 on the Billboard Hot 100 and Adult Contemporary charts in early 1977, and was also a top 10 hit in Canada, Italy, Belgium and the Netherlands. Surprisingly, it would be Stewart’s only song to chart in his native UK, where it peaked at a disappointing #31. The album peaked at #5 on the Billboard 200 Album chart.

I was going through a break-up at the time the song came out, and though I was only 22, I felt anxious and confused about the direction my life was taking, almost like I was having a mid-life crisis. Consequently, the songs that really resonated with me in the early months of 1977 were Fleetwood Mac’s “Go Your Own Way” and “Dreams”, and Stewart’s “Year of the Cat”. I loved the song’s hauntingly beautiful melody, gorgeous arrangement, lush instrumentation, enchanting lyrics, and Stewart’s beguiling vocals. “Dreams” and “Year of the Cat” are my two favorite songs of 1977.

The song has kind of an interesting back story I discovered researching for this post. Stewart took the melody for “Year of the Cat” from “Foot of the Stage”, an unreleased song he wrote in 1966 after seeing a performance by comedian Tony Hancock, who joked about being a complete loser who might as well end it all right here (and sadly, later committed suicide). Nine years later, while touring the southern U.S. with Linda Ronstadt in 1975 (which according to a review by Katherine Hernandez of a concert Stewart gave in Edmonds, Washington in November 2017, was not a happy experience), he heard the tour pianist Peter Wood repeatedly playing a catchy chord progression during soundchecks that sounded somewhat similar to his original melody for “Foot of the Stage”. Stewart asked Wood if he could incorporate his piano notes into a song, and ended up giving Wood writing credit for “Year of the Cat”.

The song was recorded at Abbey Road Studios in January 1976, under the direction of engineer/musician Alan Parsons, who produced the track. In addition to Stewart, who sang vocals and played guitar and keyboards, Tim Renwick played both lead acoustic and electric guitars, George Ford played bass, Peter Wood and Don Lobster played additional keyboards, Stuart Elliot played drums and percussion, Andrew Powell played string arrangements, Bobby Bruce played violin, Marion Driscoll played triangle, and Phil Kenzie played alto saxophone. His marvelous sax solos transformed the song’s original folk concept into the jazz-influenced ballad that made it a big hit. Surprisingly, Stewart told Dallas radio program In the Studio with Redbeard that he didn’t like those sax solos at first but eventually grew to like them. (Wikipedia)

The song’s lyrics describe a male tourist who encounters a mysterious silk-clad woman while visiting a market in an exotic country. She promptly carries him off to a romantic adventure, which he willingly participates in, captivated by her charms. Upon waking the next day beside her, he discovers that his tour bus has left without him, and decides to stay where he is for now, in the year of the cat. The lyrics also make references to Humphrey Bogart and Peter Lorre, which Stewart was inspired to include after watching the film Casablanca. As for the song’s title, in the Vietnamese zodiac, the Cat is one of the twelve signs, and corresponds to the Rabbit sign in the Chinese zodiac. At the time of the song’s release, the most recent Year of the Rabbit had been February 11, 1975 to January 30, 1976, thus, the song was written and recorded in the Vietnamese Year of the Cat. (Songfacts)

On a morning from a Bogart movie
In a country where they turn back time
You go strolling through the crowd like Peter Lorre
Contemplating a crime
She comes out of the sun in a silk dress running
Like a watercolor in the rain
Don't bother asking for explanations
She'll just tell you that she came
In the year of the cat

She doesn't give you time for questions
As she locks up your arm in hers
And you follow 'till your sense of which direction
Completely disappears
By the blue tiled walls near the market stalls
There's a hidden door she leads you to
These days, she says, I feel my life
Just like a river running through
The year of the cat

While she looks at you so cooly
And her eyes shine like the moon in the sea
She comes in incense and patchouli
So you take her, to find what's waiting inside
The year of the cat

Well morning comes and you're still with her
And the bus and the tourists are gone
And you've thrown away your choice you've lost your ticket
So you have to stay on
But the drum-beat strains of the night remain
In the rhythm of the newborn day
You know sometime you're bound to leave her
But for now you're going to stay
In the year of the cat

The album’s beautiful and whimsical cover art, designed by Hipgnosis and illustrator Colin Elgie, depicts a woman with an apparent obsession with cats reflected in a mirror as she dresses up as a cat, possibly for a costume party. The assortment of items displayed on her dresser all have cat motifs, and her cat’s tail is visible at the bottom.

Here’s a wonderful performance of the song by Stewart and fellow musicians at Daryl Hall’s home studio in upstate New York this past April.

30 Day Song Challenge, Day 13 – “Rhapsody in Blue” by George Gershwin

The subject for Day 13 of my 30 Day Song Challenge is “A song that shifted your taste in music“. This was another difficult one for me, as I can’t really say that one song shifted my overall taste in music. My music tastes have always been pretty eclectic. My earliest music memories are hearing my much older brother (16 years older than me) play his Elvis Presley, Fats Domino, Little Richard and the Everly Brothers records in the late 50s, and my parents play their Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Ella Fitzgerald, Ray Charles, Steve Lawrence & Eydie Gorme albums. By the mid-60s, I was heavily into pop and R&B, especially music by the Beatles, Supremes, Four Tops, Righteous Brothers, Petula Clark and Mamas & Papas.

Looking back, there are some songs from genres I didn’t previously care for that made a very strong impression on me at the time. The first that comes to mind is Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love” in 1969, which was harder and heavier than anything I’d heard before. I hated it at first, as I found it quite repellent, but eventually grew to love it. Although it made me a fan of Led Zeppelin, it didn’t necessarily make me a fan of hard rock or heavy metal, as I never cared to listen to the music of their contemporaries like Black Sabbath, AC/DC, KISS and Judas Priest. So no great shift in music taste there.

Another song would be Eminem’s “Lose Yourself”. When it came out in late 2001, I still hated rap music, and hated the song the first time I heard it. But after a couple more listens, I fell in love with it, so much so that it ended up becoming my second-favorite song of the 2000s (after “Clocks” by Coldplay). But once again, even though I loved the song, which also made me a fan of Eminem, it did not turn me into much of a fan of rap music, because I still dislike most rap.

After I started writing reviews at the request of artists and bands, I gradually became more receptive to different styles and genres of music beyond my normal comfort zone. One of those was metalcore/death metal, with its often very dark themes and harsh screamo vocals. And though I gained a newfound appreciation for that type of music and vocal style – even writing positive reviews of several singles and albums – I can’t say it ‘shifted’ my overall taste in music either.

After that long-winded discussion, I’m left with only one plausible choice, and that would be the magnificent “Rhapsody in Blue” by George Gershwin. Though my parents also had a few classical albums in their collection, I’d never formed an appreciation for classical music until one day in 1974. I was in a huge record store in San Jose with my dad and stepmom, when I heard some incredible music being played over their sound system. I asked my dad what it was, and he said it was “Rhapsody in Blue”. I was so taken with it that, right then and there, I bought an album featuring the piece, along with Gershwin’s other great composition “An American in Paris”, performed by The Boston Pops, and conducted by the renowned Arthur Fiedler.

George Gershwin was a brilliant American pianist and composer who tragically died far too young from a brain tumor at the age of only 38. Over his rather brief career, his compositions spanned both classical and popular – namely jazz – genres. He wrote “Rhapsody in Blue” in 1924 for solo piano and jazz band on a commission by bandleader Paul Whiteman for his special concert program entitled “An Experiment in Modern Music”. The rhapsody was then arranged for orchestra by Whiteman’s arranger Ferde Grofé, a composer and pianist who wrote the tone poem “Grand Canyon Suite” in 1931.

“Rhapsody in Blue” premiered at the concert held in Aeolian Hall on February 12, 1924 in New York City, with Whiteman’s band the Palais Royal Orchestra performing the rhapsody and Gershwin playing piano. The much-anticipated concert, which was intended to showcase modern musical trends, drew a large and excited audience consisting of vaudevillians, composers, symphony and opera stars, concert managers, Tin Pan Alley acolytes and flappers. The program was lengthy, with 26 separate musical movements, divided into two parts and eleven sections, with Gershwin’s rhapsody to be performed second-to-last before the final piece, Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1”.

The audience was reportedly underwhelmed by many of the earlier numbers in the program which, combined with the malfunctioning ventilation system in the concert hall, caused those in attendance to become irritable and restless. Some were already heading for the exits by the time Gershwin appeared on stage to perform his rhapsody. But once they heard Ross Gorman’s haunting clarinet glissando (a continuous slide upward or downward from one pitch to another) that opened “Rhapsody in Blue”, they were mesmerized. That distinctive glissando was created almost as a joke. During rehearsals, clarinetist Gorman played the opening measure with a noticeable glissando, ‘stretching’ the notes out and adding what he considered a jazzy, humorous touch to the passage. Gershwin loved it, and asked him to perform the opening measure that way, and to add as much of a ‘wail’ as possible. (Wikipedia)

Upon the conclusion of the rhapsody, the crowd erupted in joyous applause. In contrast to the warm reception by concert audiences, however, professional music critics gave the piece decidedly mixed reviews. One opinionated music critic, Lawrence Gilman – a Richard Wagner enthusiast who would later write a devastating review of Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess – harshly criticized the rhapsody as “so derivative, so stale, so inexpressive” in a review for the New York Tribune.

Other reviewers were more positive. Samuel Chotzinoff, music critic of the New York World, conceded that Gershwin’s composition had “made an honest woman out of jazz,” while Henrietta Strauss of The Nation opined that Gershwin had “added a new chapter to our musical history.” Olin Downes, reviewing the concert in The New York Times, wrote: “This composition shows extraordinary talent, as it shows a young composer with aims that go far beyond those of his ilk, struggling with a form of which he is far from being master…. In spite of all this, he has expressed himself in a significant and, on the whole, highly original form.(Wikipedia)

On the whole, “Rhapsody in Blue” has stood the test of time, and remains one of George Gershwin’s most recognizable creations and an important composition that helped define the Jazz Age. The piece inaugurated a new era in American musical history, established Gershwin’s reputation as an eminent composer, and eventually became one of the most popular of all concert works. It’s among my favorite classical pieces, and was the most instrumental in my coming to love and appreciate classical music.

30 Day Song Challenge, Day 12 – “It’s Too Late” by Carole King

My original 45 single of “It’s Too Late/I Feel the Earth Move”

The subject for Day 12 of my 30 Day Song Challenge is “A song from your teenage years“, and my pick is the poignant break-up song “It’s Too Late” by Carole King. I was 16 years old when the song came out in April 1971, and remember thinking that it had a more mature feel, both lyrically and musically, than most of the other songs I’d heard up to that point in my young life. Though I’d not yet been involved in a romantic relationship, the song’s bittersweet lyrics about the end of a love affair really resonated with me. I also loved the song’s simple, yet sophisticated, arrangement and King’s earnest vocals that beautifully expressed a sense of sad resignation, without being too maudlin.

The song was co-written by King, who composed the music, and Toni Stern, who wrote the lyrics. Stern later told author Sheila Weller for her 2009 book Girls Like Us: Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon – and the Journey of a Generation, that she wrote the lyrics in a single day, after her love affair with James Taylor ended. For the recording of the song, King played piano and sang vocals, Danny Kortchmar played guitar and conga, Curtis Amy played the haunting saxophone, Charles Larkey played bass, Joel O’Brien played drums, and Ralph Schuckett played electric piano.

The lead single from her hugely successful and critically-acclaimed masterpiece album Tapestry, “It’s Too Late” was a massive hit, spending five weeks at #1 on both the Billboard Hot 100 and Adult Contemporary charts in the summer of 1971, and is my favorite song of that year. The single’s B-side “I Feel the Earth Move” also charted, peaking at #12. “It’s Too Late” was awarded a Grammy for Record of the Year in 1972.

Stayed in bed all mornin' just to pass the time
There's somethin' wrong here, there can be no denyin'
One of us is changin', or maybe we've just stopped tryin'

And it's too late, baby, now it's too late
Though we really did try to make it
Somethin' inside has died
And I can't hide and I just can't fake it
Oh, no, no, no, no, no
(No, no, no, no)

It used to be so easy, livin' here with you
You were light and breezy, and I knew just what to do
Now you look so unhappy and I feel like a fool

And it's too late, baby, now it's too late
Though we really did try to make it (we can't make it)
Somethin' inside has died
And I can't hide and I just can't fake it
Oh, no, no

There'll be good times again for me and you
But we just can't stay together, don't you feel it, too?
Still I'm glad for what we had and how I once loved you

But it's too late, baby, now it's too late
Though we really did try to make it (we can't make it)
Somethin' inside has died
And I can't hide and I just can't fake it
Oh, no, no, no, no

It's too late, baby
It's too late now, darling
It's too late

30 Day Song Challenge, Day 11 – “I Want to Hold Your Hand” by the Beatles

The subject for Day 11 of my 30 Day Song Challenge is “A song from the first album you ever owned“. This will reveal how ancient I am, but the first album I ever owned was Meet the Beatles!, which I bought in 1964 when I was nine years old. My copy, pictured above, is still in mint condition. The song I’ve chosen from the album is “I Want to Hold Your Hand“, which was my introduction to the Beatles, and their first Top 40 hit in the U.S. (The version of the album released in the UK was titled With the Beatles, and featured a different list of tracks, none of which was “I Want to Hold Your Hand”.)

The Beatles recorded “I Want to Hold Your Hand” at EMI Studios in London on October 17, 1963, along with “This Boy”, which became the B-side of the 45 single released in the UK. The two songs were recorded on the same day, and required seventeen takes to complete. The single was released on November 29, 1963 in the UK, and December 26, 1963 in the U.S., although the version released in the U.S. featured “I Saw Her Standing There” as the B-side.

The song entered the Billboard Hot 100 chart at #45 on January 18, 1964, which music historians mark as the beginning of the ‘British Invasion’ of the American music industry. It reached #1 on February 1st, and stayed there for seven weeks before being replaced by “She Loves You”, which had actually been released in September 1963, but shockingly, failed to catch on in the U.S. at the time. Despite receiving a positive review in Billboard, “She Loves You” garnered very little radio airplay, sold only about 1,000 copies, and completely failed to chart on Billboard (I previously featured “She Loves You” for another song challenge in 2020, which you can read here).

After the poor reception for “She Loves You” in the U.S., Capitol Records (the Beatles’ label for the distribution of their music in the U.S.) resisted releasing any more of their music, despite protestations by Beatles’ producer George Martin and manager Brian Epstein. Capitol finally released “I Want to Hold Your Hand” the day after Christmas 1963. 

Though the song was quickly embraced by raving fans on both sides of the Atlantic, it was dismissed by some stodgy critics as nothing more than another fad song that would not hold up to the test of time. Proving them wrong, “I Want to Hold Your Hand” went on to become the Beatles’ best-selling single worldwide, selling more than 12 million copies, and in 2018, Billboard named it the 48th biggest hit of all time on its Hot 100. In the UK, it was the second highest selling single of the 1960s, behind “She Loves You”.

Here’s their famous performance on the Ed Sullivan Show on February 9, 1964.

30 Day Song Challenge Day 10 – “For All We Know” by The Carpenters

Well, I somehow managed to skip over the correct Day 9 subject of the 30-day song challenge and mistakenly went directly to Day 10 for Saturday’s post. So, for today’s Day 10 post I’m going to tackle “A song you never get tired of listening to“. And once again, this was a tough call, as there are hundreds of songs I love that I never tire of hearing. But pick one I must, and to make my selection a little easier, I’ve chosen a beloved song I’ve not previously written about. My pick is “For All We Know” by the Carpenters. (I have previously written about the Carpenters though, when I featured their song “Superstar” in 2019.)  

As I wrote in that earlier article, with their successful run of great singles from 1970-75, beginning with their massive hit “(They Long to Be) Close to You”, the Carpenters were one of my favorite acts back then. Their music was beautiful, with the kind of lush orchestration I love, and Karen Carpenter had the voice of an angel. Her distinctive, pitch-perfect contralto singing voice remains one of the finest of any female pop singer ever, in my opinion. I loved their music so much as a teen that I wrote a paper about them for my 11th grade English class (the only time I wrote about music or an artist until becoming a blogger several decades later). 

“For All We Know” was written for the hilarious 1970 comedy Lovers and Other Strangers, with music by Fred Karlin and lyrics by Robb Wilson Royer and Arthur James Griffin (both Royer and Griffin were founding members of the soft rock group Bread). (Most of the songs recorded by the Carpenters were written by others, other than their hits “Goodbye to Love” and “Yesterday Once More”, which were co-written by Richard Carpenter and John Bettis, “Only Yesterday” by Carpenter, Bettis and Kōji Makaino, and “I Need to Be in Love” by Carpenter, Bettis and Albert Hammond.) The song was originally sung by Larry Meredith for the film’s soundtrack, and when Richard heard his version while watching Lovers and Other Strangers, he felt the song would be perfect for their style and Karen’s voice.

For the recording of the song, Richard initially wanted Jose Feliciano, who was a big fan of theirs and wanted to play on one of their records, to play guitar on the intro. They went into the studio, where Feliciano came up with an intro on his nylon string acoustic guitar, however, the following day Feliciano’s manager demanded that he be removed from the recording. (Wikipedia) Disappointed but undaunted, Richard removed Feliciano’s guitar intro and replaced it with a beautiful oboe intro by Earle Dumler (an esteemed musician who played on several Carpenters records, as well as with an eclectic range of artists such as Stan Kenton, Tim Buckley, J.D. Souther, Frank Zappa, Helen Reddy, Barbra Streisand, Robert Palmer and Nina Simone, among many others over the years). Though I haven’t heard Feliciano’s guitar intro, I believe Dumler’s sublime oboe intro had to have made the song much better. Besides Dumler’s oboe, the other instruments on “For All We Know” were played by Richard Carpenter (piano, Hammond organ, Wurlitzer electric piano), and Wrecking Crew members Joe Osborn (bass) and Hal Blaine (drums).

“For All We Know” was also recorded by Shirley Bassey at the same time as the Carpenters’ version, where it was a hit in the UK, peaking at #6, and later by Petula Clark and Nicki French. But it was the Carpenters’ recording that’s the best known and most popular, reaching #3 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart and #1 on the Easy Listening chart in 1971. The song also won the Academy Award for Best Original Song.

An interesting bit of trivia I learned in researching the song for this write-up is that the Motion Picture Academy did not previously allow artists to perform a best original song nominee at the Oscars if they had not appeared in a film, which finally explains for me why Anne Reinking sang “Against All Odds” (in a terrible performance that included a bizarre interpretive dance) at the 1985 Oscars instead of Phil Collins, but I digress. Since the Carpenters were not allowed to perform “For All We Know” at the ceremony, they requested that it be performed by their friend Petula Clark. Clark would later perform the song in tribute to Karen Carpenter at her concert at Royal Albert Hall on February 6, 1983, two days after Karen’s untimely and very sad death. Here’s a video of that poignant performance: